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Though expected, the loss of a hero still stings

By JEFF KLINKENBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 15, 1998


I had one of the last "come in, sit down, would you like something to drink?" interviews with Marjory Stoneman Douglas. It happened in 1992, and I was as nervous as a kid reporter.

Mrs. Douglas was one of my heroes, the person who had done the most to try to save the Everglades, a place I had loved and explored since childhood. Her landmark book, The Everglades: River of Grass, was considered the Bible by people who cared about natural Florida, including me. Still, the aristocratic Mrs. Douglas could be daunting. Blind and virtually deaf, she already had entered her second century on the planet, and she was notoriously cantankerous.

Often she admonished reporters who asked "stupid questions." She might sniff, "Read the book!" when she sensed a journalist had failed to do necessary homework about her 'glades. People in my profession develop thick skin, but I couldn't stand the thought of being treated roughly by someone I so admired.

I ended up spending a delightful afternoon at her home in Coconut Grove, a suburb of Miami. She was alert and friendly, and snapped only once, when I asked two ambiguous questions in a row. "Oh, mercy!" she stormed, throwing up her translucent hands in disgust. Mrs. Douglas valued clarity.

But she liked a gift I had brought, a rug, and she answered questions about the Everglades in perfect paragraphs. She made me feel at home by asking questions about my life and my children. I stayed three hours, and she even gave me the run of her house, inviting me to poke around, to jot down things I might use in the story I was preparing.

When a 108-year-old woman dies it can hardly be a shock. Everyone who loves the Everglades long has known this day was coming as surely as dusk. Still it stings more than I thought it would.

She was our Joan of Arc. Tiny and frail, a straw hat upon her head and pearls around her neck, she could be counted on to stand up and defend the Everglades. She spoke with the moral authority of someone who knew herself, who knew what was important and what was right, and didn't care what anyone thought once she had made up her mind. The Everglades were worth saving. And that was that.

As a young woman, she enjoyed driving out the new Tamiami Trail with friends and picnicking where the highway ended in the saw grass. But she was no sportswoman. She didn't hunt or fish or canoe or camp. She hated the heat and the mosquitoes, much preferring the sound of ice rattling in a glass of scotch.

Yet she valued the 'glades for the beauty, for the birds and the water, the lifeblood of South Florida. A talented reporter who learned her craft on her father's newspaper, the Miami Herald, she was the perfect person to write a classic.

"There are no other Everglades in the world," was the first line in her memorable book. The year was 1947, and the federal government had just opened the national park. At the same time, federal engineers, at the urging of the state, were beginning a huge project to drain the 'glades forever. Another federal project was in the works to floodproof the beginning of the Everglades system, the meandering Kissimmee River, by straightening it into a canal.

The importance of Mrs. Douglas' book was that she recognized the Everglades as more than a "swamp." Swamps are easier for politicians to destroy than "rivers," a word that connotes moving water, "life." Educating the public about a unique river of grass was something of a public relations coup.

Yet it took several decades, and Mrs. Douglas' personal involvement in environmental causes, for her lessons finally to sink in.

In 1968, Dade and Monroe counties proposed building a huge jetport in the middle of the Everglades, already drying up because of roads and 1,400 miles of drainage canals. Land speculators rejoiced, for a jetport surely would open more of the 'glades to development.

Mrs. Douglas, already 78, formed an organization, the Friends of the Everglades, to oppose it. Eventually, the jetport proposal was killed by President Richard Nixon, and a few years later the federal government began buying up the Big Cypress to protect the western flank of the Everglades system.

Mrs. Douglas stayed on the case, focusing attention on the need to provide the Everglades with a steady supply of clean water. Other environmental groups took up her cry. She especially dismayed the sugar barons and the politicians who represent them. She was a public relations nightmare for opponents who found it nearly impossible to criticize a true icon.

Today, the Everglades is considered a world treasure, and politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, like to publicly fall all over themselves in declaring their love and support for it. Several federal projects, costing billions of dollars, have been proposed to restore the damaged plumbing system.

Mrs. Douglas, I am sure, would urge skepticism. She always said the times to be most alert were those moments when everything seemed to be going well. Where's the money for the restoration? That likely would be among her legion of questions.

Who can replace her? She survived her two most important, and younger, allies, the ecologist Arthur Marshall, who saw all parts of the Everglades as interrelated components, and George Barley, a businessman who had taken on the sugar industry during the 1990s. It is hard to say who will step forward now that she is gone. I'm tempted to say that she is irreplaceable, though to that she probably would say "poppycock!", a word with which she was very comfortable. Of another era, she also got through life without owning a car, air conditioning, television, and even a stove.

I tried to keep in touch with Mrs. Douglas after our first meeting, sending her Everglades-related stories whenever I wrote them. She always answered promptly, through her secretary, who read my stories to her. Mrs. Douglas often offered something encouraging, and once in a while sent a personal message.

I don't know what happens or where people go when they die. Mrs. Douglas told people she didn't believe in an afterlife.

"The soul is a fiction of mankind, because mankind hates the idea of death," she once wrote. "I think death is the end. A lot of people can't bear that idea, but I find it a little restful, really. I'm happy not to feel I'm going on. I don't really want to. I think this life has been plenty."

Her ashes are going to be scattered across the river of grass. I hope someone remembers to toast her with two fingers of Desmond & Duff, her favorite scotch.

Farewell, Friend of the Everglades.


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